Petra Hulova - to Mongolia and back again

In this week's One on One - Jan Velinger's guest is the young Czech writer and student of Mongolian studies Petra Hulova, whose book Pamet moji Babicce, or Memory for My Grandmother, has taken the Czech literary scene by storm. Jan talks to Ms Hulova about the stay in Mongolia that inspired her novel, voted by Lidove Noviny as the best in 2002.

So, Petra, I heard somewhere that one of the first things to influence you to go to Mongolia was a film by Michalkov; if that was the first impulse what led to your actually taking the decision to go to Mongolia for a year?

"It was not just my personal decision because I am studying Mongolian studies in Prague, and it's usual that students spend their first year of studying in Mongolia, at the university in Ulan Bator - so, I was supposed to go there."

Eventually, how did the reality of Mongolia meet with your expectations?

"Well, I mean, Mongolia is a kind of state in the middle of nowhere, it's far from any other culture centre, on the one hand very isolated but on the other hand it's a place where European - I mean Russian - and eastern culture somehow meets and mixes, and the nature of the nomadic culture, I think, is to include lots of elements of other cultures - it was always like that in Mongolian history - so there are some Chinese elements and then the mixture of Buddhist and shaman religions, also very interesting, and now the trend to become somehow a western country and to modernise, these things, these mixes, are what attract me most."

On the one hand you have huge, wide open spaces that you describe in your book where people still live according to a nomadic lifestyle, and then you have the cities... Do you think you could describe, a little bit, the difference?

"Yeah, I mean it's a totally different world, Ulan Bator, which is in fact the only city in Mongolia and then the rest, the countryside... The countryside is still living somehow in the traditional way and I thinks it's also the only way they could live, because the life there is already after those centuries adapted to those conditions and that's why it doesn't change a lot. And it can't change a lot. But, in the countryside I spent only about a month, so ninety percent of my stay in Mongolia I was in Ulan Bator, which attracts me more because this is the place of those often strange clashes and changes which attract me..."

Overall, what were some of the things that impressed you most about Mongolian culture? Some specific examples...

"The difficulty for the people in Ulan Bator to somehow find their identity maybe, or to define themselves, I mean, culturally, because now it's discussed in Mongolia which way they would like to follow, whether some specific eastern Mongolian, or whether they would like to modernise and focus on tourism and things like that, so, yeah, this doubting about their future path, yeah, it was very interesting and new for me, because here in Europe people don't have to generally solve such questions."

For somebody that's never been there I would have thought that there would be a great aversion to Russia, but from everything I've heard now, it's actually the opposite: Russia represents, to a great extent, Europe.

"Yeah, it's exactly like that. Because, European culture, which I think Mongolian people generally appreciate a lot, it's very interesting that Mongolians don't define themselves as Asians - they more define themselves as European. And European culture for them is represented by Russia, so Russians, for them are just Europeans."

What part of Ulan Bator did you live in - if you have on one hand Soviet-style architecture, these sort of monstrosities, these huge buildings, and on the other jurtas...

"I think it's half and half. Half monumental Stalinist style, those huge buildings, it's the centre, around the centre there are blocks of flats, and then, further from the centre there is a circle of jurtas, which I think is at least as large as the blocks of flats. It's divided like that."

Are there places where young people 'hang out'?

"Bars and pubs are very expensive in Ulan Bator so it's really only for the upper-class. Normally young people meet in discos - and there are plenty of them. The music played there is that mixture of Mongolian pop music - they appreciate 'hip hop' most now. And then those pop stars, those American pop stars like Cher, Jackson, Brittney Spears."

Was it difficult for you to break through to Mongolians, to become accepted? Did you, in fact, become accepted?

"Well, actually, I don't think so. I think that I was always there as a foreigner, and they took me as a foreigner always, so, although I spent a year there I didn't break that wall that divides Mongolians from foreigners generally. I had a lot of friends there, and still I have a lot of friends there, but, I think I will always be for them something other, something strange, something that they may accept. But never as a part of their culture."

Upon your return you wrote your book 'Pamet Moji Babicce', which could be translated very loosely as 'Memory For My Grandmother' - and it's about three generations of Mongolian women in the same family - the grandmother, three daughters, a granddaughter... Now, it's common knowledge that the characters weren't based on Mongolians you met, but actually on Czechs, and Czech realities that you know...

"This book is my opinion in a certain time, now or a year ago, how the life is, how the world is. And for me it is about relations, about love, about disappointment, about bitterness, about such feelings, basic feelings for me, and in Mongolia I think life isn't polluted - maybe not the proper word - polluted by artificial phenomena like in Europe. Media, advertising, career maybe, so, if I set the story in a Czech setting I couldn't avoid writing about such things. But, I'm not interested in that, and I wanted somehow to write a rough, simple story about what life means to me."

For your characters you chose five women - the grandmother there has a key role, an almost archetypal role...

"She is a kind of legendary figure, it's not obvious what she really was, she is somehow fuzzy and those women, each of those women, each of them has a certain relationship to her, and the reader doesn't know exactly what kind of a person she was, so she is sort of this dark figure behind."

Petra Hulova's 'Pamet Moji Babbicce', (loosely translatable as Memory for My Grandmother), is available in Czech from Torst publishers. Utilising expressive language that mixes Czech with Mongolian terms, there is a mesmerising poetry in the book that readers won't forget.